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Why are the Holidays so Hard for Those in Recovery?

It’s supposed to be a time of peace, joy, and goodwill, but far too often, we find ourselves asking, “Why are the holidays so hard?”

To be clear, a lot of people feel this way, and for good reason: “The holidays often present a dizzying array of demands – cooking meals, shopping, baking, cleaning and entertaining, to name just a few,” according to the Mayo Clinic. On top of that, Mayo writers point out that 2020 offers an added layer of emotional hardship: Because of COVID-19, “you may be feeling additional stress, or you may be worrying about your and your loved ones’ health. You may also feel stressed, sad, or anxious because your holiday plans may look different during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

And then on top of that, individuals in recovery often approach the holiday season with a sense of nostalgic dread, rooted in the memories of holidays of old when we had no one except our drugs and drink and in worry over the present and all of its accompanying stressors and triggers: “That’s because addiction leaves so much damage in its wake, and the nostalgia and sentiment of the holidays seems to shine a spotlight on the gap between how things are and how you wish they could be,” writes Dr. David Sack for the blog Psych Central.

It may seem with all of that baggage, addicts, and alcoholics, instead of asking, “Why are the holidays so hard?” should instead be asking, “Why should I even bother?”

Because it’s important to remember that we used drugs and alcohol to hide from life, to retreat into a cocoon of misery that was of our own making. And all it did was make us feel more isolated, alone, and depressed than ever.

Recovery is about perseverance in spite of discomfort, and what we often find on the other side of pushing through those uncomfortable emotions is that it’s not as hard as we originally thought.

Why are the holidays so hard?

One of the traits those of us in recovery need to watch out for is that sense of “terminal uniqueness”: that no one could possibly understand what we feel or what we’re going through. It’s important to remember, however, that we’re not the only ones asking, “Why are the holidays so hard?”

Individuals who struggle with mental health issues (outside of addiction, obviously) often find themselves tested during this time of year as well, according to a 2013 article in Time magazine: “People who suffer from anxiety and depression, for example, can have their already fragile emotions strained to the breaking point from all the stress of meeting holidays obligations. And if there has been a sorrowful event during the year, the end of the year can revive the trauma.”

And then there are those who look to the holidays as a time to heal emotional wounds and family divisions, setting unrealistic expectations on what “Christmas magic” really means: “People want the holiday time to make up for family and personal tensions that exist throughout the year,” psychologist and author Margaret Wehrenberg tells the website The Healthy. “This myth of forgiveness and reunion is fed by numerous stories on TV programs and movies.”

And then there are individuals for whom the Christmas season just doesn’t fill them with wonder and child-like enthusiasm in the way that it once did … and trying to pretend that it does only makes us feel more melancholy, Dr. Judith Orloff, author of “Thriving as an Empath,” tells The New York Times: “Forced happiness makes us feel more sad, upset and lonely because we are faking our feelings. Putting on a false front to impress others or prove to them how fine we really are can make us feel like a total impostor.”

A lot of individuals beyond just us addicts and alcoholics often wonder, “Why are the holidays so hard?” And knowing that we’re not alone in our distaste, discomfort, or unease about this time of year can be a small comfort. Few things are more lonely than the feeling like we’re out of place or that we should be feeling more holiday happiness than we do, but knowing that not everyone out there is merry and bright can help us feel less like Scrooge.

What can be done?

As with all things in addiction recovery, it’s important to determine the source of our discomfort so that we can address it. Talk therapy is the go-to treatment regimen at a drug and alcohol treatment center, but keep in mind that’s exactly what we do as members of 12 Step recovery programs as well. Whether it’s with a sponsor or in meetings, we talk about what’s going on with us, even when we don’t want to, because we’ve learned that articulating or writing down what we feel can help us understand why we feel it, which in turns helps us figure out what we can do to change those feelings.

Sack has some excellent insight into some of the holiday blues that may be afflicting recovering addicts and alcoholics:

  • “Loss of intimacy: Even if you have done your best to make amends to those who were hurt by your addiction, some people may be unwilling to allow you back into their lives or unable to fully forgive you. It can be painful to think back on holidays past and realize you may never return to the former levels of emotional support and closeness you had with those you care about.”
  • “Loss of self-esteem. Because addiction requires that you take an action (consuming a substance or continuing a behavior), most people believe it is much more controllable than it is. That may include you.”
  • “Loss of identity. Addiction can damage and, in some cases, prevent us from returning to our careers. If this has happened to you, you may feel unmoored from a central anchor in your life and looking ahead to a new year of uncertainty.”

For a myriad of reasons, both secular and religious, contemporary thought has sold us on the idea that the holidays should be perfect, and because we know there’s no such thing as perfect, those of us in recovery not only feel anxiety over our own expectations but the expectations of loved ones in our lives as well, writes Marissa Miller for The New York Times: “The holidays can cause family rifts to rear up as folks gather around the dinner table. Something as simple as your circadian rhythm being thrown off by the dwindling sunlight might be the culprit. Or even just the common misapprehension of, Everyone is having a great time, but me can be enough to send us tumbling.”

But even when we find ourselves spiraling down an emotional rabbit hole, it’s critically important to remember, as David Sapatkin writes for The Philadelphia Inquirer: “Getting through the holidays is all about support … from sponsors, from 12-step meetings now available at any hour, from attending parties where everyone is sober and working on their recovery.”

Why are the holidays so hard?

A newly recovering alcoholic was sitting in a 12 Step meeting one time, sharing about his difficulty accepting the nature of his disease. Why, he wondered, did it afflict him? Why was he an alcoholic? Why did he have to work to stay sober for the rest of his life? An old-timer sitting next to him, one of those guys with nicotine-stained fingers and an omnipresent Styrofoam cup of Folger’s in his hands, turned to the newcomer and said, “Well … why not you? Sometimes it’s just your turn.”

He went on to explain that asking why isn’t nearly as important as asking, “What am I going to do about it?” As astute predecessors have taught us, we need to work on getting into the solution instead of dwelling in the problem. Why are the holidays so hard? Asked and answered, your honor. Now, let’s figure out what we’re going to do about it. Fortunately, there are plenty of suggestions from across the spectrum of psychology, social work and recovery:

  • Embrace service,” Sack writes. “This is more than a feel-good activity to get your mind off your troubles. Serving others, perhaps as a volunteer for an organization or one-on-one for someone in need, can be a deeply powerful way to return meaning to life. No matter how damaged you may feel, no matter how bereft of identity, sad or reduced, there are positive contributions yet to be made.”
  • Manage your expectations – and not just of yourself and others, writes Holly Jespersen for the nonprofit recovery website Shatterproof: “Also manage your expectations of the holiday season in general – it’s a fun and festive time, but the holidays do not make you feel feelings less, or make your family miraculously get along like the Brady Bunch. Give yourself a reality check.” In other words, let go of Christmas fantasies you might have about the movie-perfect holiday: “Unrealistic hopes that everything will be perfect and that everyone needs to be happy leads to disappointment and frustration, and raises levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which will make you feel edgy and irritable,” psychologist, author and educator Deborah Serani tells The Healthy. Instead, she adds, “focus on what’s ‘good enough,’ and make that your mantra. The more realistic you are about the true meaning of the holidays, which is about celebration and togetherness – not perfection – the more you’ll experience well-being.”
  • Learn how to say no! This one is big, Jespersen adds: “You do not need to go to every holiday party you get invited to. Period, end of story. Also, if you don’t feel like the activity or event is one that will bring joy to your soul but rather feels like an obligation, then say no. No is a complete sentence without having to provide an explanation. Just politely decline and be free in your decision.”
  • Stop with the comparisons! How often do we hear in recovery meetings that we can’t compare our insides to another person’s outsides? Jespersen adds to that point: “Holiday cards used to get me down – I’d feel like since I’m not married with children, my life must not be fulfilling. But that is so not true. I decided I needed to stop worrying about others and start celebrating myself.” Despite what car commercials might have you believe, life isn’t a competition. How you “win” doesn’t have to look like how someone else does, and you never know whether the person who looks like he or she has it all is asking, just as you are, “Why are the holidays so hard?”
  • Be good to yourself. This includes self-care, like calling your sponsor and going to meetings and maintaining your spiritual practices and eating healthy and sleeping well and all of that other stuff we do to be more present, more patient, and more productive … but it also includes indulging in holiday events and activities that make you feel good: “Have fun,” Jespersen writes. “Enjoy the season, the music, the cheesy Netflix holiday movies, decorating, baking, entertaining, all of it! It should be fun, not something to check off your list. And if you don’t feel joyful participating in it, don’t do it!”

Why are the holidays so hard? Because life is hard … sometimes. But it’s not always, and just because you’re approaching the forthcoming season with the blues doesn’t mean that this holiday season, or that every holiday season, will be difficult.

And even when it is, it doesn’t have to stay that way. Much of what you get out of the season depends on what you put into it, so if staring out the window at what feels like a lonely and unforgiving world is your plan for now through New Year’s, then it’s gonna be rough. But if you choose to do the things that you know will give you a little bit of peace, or a little bit of comfort, or a little bit of solace, then you might find that the holidays aren’t as hard as you think.

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